I’ve always thought of long-time Cato ally Tim Sandefur as one of the most thoughtful libertarians in the blogosphere. This holiday weekend he did not disappoint, offering a stinging rebuke to Matt Yglesias’s blather about how America is “awesome” but would have been “even awesomer had English and American political leaders … been farsighted enough to find compromises that would have held the empire together.”
Sandefur correctly points out that the British, while now our closest friends (along with Canada, the part of British North America that did not join in revolt), in the 1770s left the colonists with no choice:
Abject submission is what you get when you try to “compromise” with those who would destroy your liberty and reduce you under absolute despotism.
He then goes on to excoriate Yglesias for elsewhere saying of the difference between liberal and conservative patriotism that “liberals do a better job of recognizing that much as we may love America there’s something arbitrary about it – we’re just so happen to be Americans whereas other people are Canadians or Mexicans or French or Russian or what have you.” Sandefur points out that these other nationalities “are based on ethnicity and chance, while American nationality is based on choice and the assent to certain basic principles that make up our nation.”
That’s exactly right: America is anything but ethnic (or other) happenstance, but instead stands for government by the principled consent of the governed, and the Founding generation’s choice of liberty over continued subjugation. Consequently, America’s patriotism (qua nationalism) is civic rather than ethnic:
What July 4th is about is to remind us that all those who stand up for freedom and refuse to “compromise” their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are brothers and sisters and at heart Americans; that all who today try to move their countries toward a fuller recognition and implementation of these principles are working hand in hand with our founders; that American nationhood is the first ever founded on anything but an arbitrary ethnic or historical basis, but on the basis of certain shared principles, principles that can be grasped by “a candid world,” and that give hope to all men for all future time.
As they say, read the whole thing.
You could argue, of course, that other new world (or immigrant) countries like Canada and Australia (or Argentina) are also not based on ethnicity, but there, quite obviously, there is no “national idea” – focusing on liberty or otherwise. Canada is constantly having national conversations on “what it means to be Canadian,” which typically fails to produce any answers beyond “well, we’re not Americans” (at least for those outside of Quebec, which has never been fully assimilated into the Canadian “nation”). And of course, many other countries that are or were based on an idea (Communism, etc.) lack the consent of the governed. Having been born in then-Soviet Russia and raised in Canada, I have all too much experience with countries lacking either a civic basis or popular legitimacy.
For what I think of the American Idea, scroll/click through this.